It was a rainy Thursday in January, when representatives of all UN-Water organisations came together for the 30th UN-Water meeting. The venue for this gathering was the high office building of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, located within the ‘quartiere ardeatino’ on the southern side of Rome. Looking at the list with topics to be discussed during this meeting in 2019, representatives could see that a vote needed to take place to decide the World Water Day theme for 2022. IGRAC, with the support of UNESCO-IHP, had proposed ‘groundwater’ as potential theme and advocated for the need to spotlight this highly undervalued resource. Among 15 proposed themes, IGRAC’s proposal received most votes and ‘Groundwater, making the invisible visible’ was selected the World Water Day 2022 theme.
However, this 2022 edition would be unlike any other edition before. Not only was it the first time that the theme of World Water Day was aligned with that of World Toilet Day, but IGRAC and UNESCO-IHP also committed to organising the first UN-Water Summit on Groundwater as culmination of a year of groundwater awareness raising. With this year coming to an end, it is time for a review on the main outcomes of this ‘groundwater year’, but also for looking forward towards its follow-up activities in 2023.
A World Water Day focused on groundwater would bring attention to this vital but often overlooked resource, foster knowledge exchange and collaboration, and raise awareness of the need to protect and manage our groundwater resources. IGRAC advocating for a WWD dedicated to groundwater
But before looking back at the outcomes of both worldwide campaigns and several international events, it is important to zoom out to the overarching message. And that message is that groundwater plays a crucial role in the global water supply, providing nearly half of all drinking water, 40% of water for agricultural irrigation, and approximately one-third of the water needed for industry. It also helps to sustain ecosystems, maintain the baseflow of rivers, and prevent land subsidence and seawater intrusion. Groundwater is a key part of the process of adapting to climate change and is often the only source of safe water for some communities. However, despite its importance, most people are unaware of groundwater and the challenges it faces. Human activities, including population and economic growth, and climate variability are putting increasing pressure on groundwater resources, leading to problems of depletion and pollution in many parts of the world.
World Water Day Campaign
In March UNESCO and IGRAC led the World Water Day 2022 campaign “Groundwater: Making the invisible visible” on behalf of UN-Water. The focus of the campaign was that exploring, protecting, and sustainably using groundwater will be central to surviving and adapting to climate change and meeting the needs of a growing population. Resources from this campaign were made freely available and included factsheets, videos, links to webinars, case studies, and other information on groundwater.
The success of the campaign was global with over 800,000 mentions and 8.7 billion social media impression, across 204 countries and territories. UN-Water
The World Water Day campaign also became the centre of several political initiatives around the world targeting issues related to saving and valuing water. Politicians such as the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi actively promoted the World Water Day.
To add an interactive element to this worldwide campaign, IGRAC initiated the #MyGroundwaterStory video challenge. People from around the world were asked to pick up their cameras or phones and explain what groundwater means to them. A selection of the most compelling stories would then be shown during the official opening ceremony of the UN-Water Summit on Groundwater, as well as in the exposition area throughout the entire event. Hundreds of people accepted this challenge and posted videos, making the invisible visible. A selection of those videos can be viewed here.
Groundwater and sanitation
The #MyGroundwaterStory challenge started just before World Water Day and lasted until 19 November, thereby connecting to the second UN day: World Toilet Day 2022. This year's edition was dedicated to the theme 'sanitation and groundwater' and was a continuation of the 'Making the invisible visible' campaign. The WHO and UNICEF helped to link groundwater and sanitation, resulting in the following three main messages.
- Safe sanitation protects groundwater. Toilets that are properly sited and connected to safely managed sanitation systems, collect, treat and dispose of human waste, and help prevent human waste from spreading into groundwater.
- Sanitation must withstand climate change. Toilets and sanitation systems must be built or adapted to cope with extreme weather events, so that services always function and groundwater is protected.
- Sanitation action is urgent. We are seriously off track to ensure safe toilets for all by 2030. With only eight years left, the world needs to work four times faster to meet our promise.
World Water Development Report 2022
Another invaluable resource for raising awareness about groundwater is the World Water Development Report 2022, the United Nation’s flagship report on water. Launched at the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal, the WWDR provides a first-stop trustworthy source of knowledge and information for regional, national and local-level decision-makers, water resource managers and practitioners to refer to when faced with groundwater knowledge gaps. The report presents the state and trends of groundwater resources globally, describes the challenges and opportunities associated with the development, management, and governance of groundwater across the world and explains groundwater’s vital role in water and sanitation systems, agriculture, industry, ecosystems, and climate change adaptation.
World Water Development Report 2022 and its related publications have been downloaded 74.000 times from March till today. In the month following its launch, the WWDR 2022 generated over 3000 online articles and over 230 press publications worldwide.
Year of Groundwater events and declarations
In conjunction with the World Water Day campaign, key events were organized throughout the rest of the year aimed at conveying a message about the importance of groundwater to the UN 2023 Water Conference.
The process of conveying that groundwater message already started in 2021, with a number of events that fed into the Year of Groundwater. These included COP26 where a water pavilion was present for the first time and the second ISARM Conference which highlighted that the improvement of the current state of knowledge on the assessment of transboundary aquifers is essential to socio-economic development and the attainment of the SDGs.
The year 2021 also saw the IAH host two international congresses, in Brazil and Belgium. In conjunction with these, a survey on groundwater challenges and solutions was launched. Its responses and analysis have formed the basis of the São Paulo-Brussels Groundwater Declaration which raises awareness to groundwaters critical role in earths survival, highlighting a range of current issues and calling for the protection of groundwater through a series of urgent actions.
Alongside the main World Water Day and World Toilet Day Campaigns, many other events and high-level declarations helped to place groundwater high on the international agenda throughout 2022. In March in Dakar at the 9th World Water Forum, a Declaration on Water and Sanitation Security for Peace and Development was announced. In May, a conference dedicated to the role that groundwater plays in the SDGs was held in Paris. Main findings of this conference included that groundwater is invisible but plays a key role in achieving many SDGs targets by 2030 and that moving forward groundwater must be firmly included in the overall contribution of water to the SDGs. Other notable contributions to the Year of Groundwater included the second High-level Conference on the International Decade for Action and the Dushanbe Declaration in June, Stockholm World Water Week in August with many seminars and sessions dedicated to groundwater, and the SADC-GMI conference in November calling for groundwater systems thinking as one of the key approaches in achieving a water resilient SADC region.
Finally, at the end of November at the Australasian Groundwater Conference (AGC), the Indigenous Groundwater Declaration was released for signatories to acknowledge, champion and support Indigenous knowledges in groundwater activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies.
The Year of Groundwater then concluded at the UN-Water Summit on Groundwater 2022, held in Paris on 7-8 December. This summit attracted more than 800 on-site and 3500 online participants, and aimed at bringing groundwater to the attention of political leaders and ministries at the highest international level. The sessions at the Summit were dedicated to the SDG 6 accelerators: data and information, capacity development, innovation, governance and finance, with additional regional dialogues and thematic sessions on groundwater in Africa, transboundary aquifers and the science-policy-practice. The summit also hosted the first groundwater youth forum.
As a conclusion to the summit, a UN-Water joint statement was released, that calls on actors to declare voluntary commitments and announce accelerated action toward: financing sustainable groundwater management, development, and use; collection and sharing of data and information; strengthening human and institutional capacity; leveraging and scaling up innovations for groundwater management; and enhancing groundwater governance. Member states are also specifically called upon within the statement register voluntary commitments on groundwater capacity development, data and information, innovation, governance, and finance as part of the Water Action Agenda of the UN 2023 Water Conference.
Although the groundwater year is coming to a conclusion, IGRAC is committed to continue to make the invisible visible in 2023. With the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York on 22-24 March being the first major milestone. Saying that this conference is an extraordinary event, would be an understatement. This is only the second UN-organised conference dedicated to water in history, with the previous edition dating back 46 years ago (Mar Del Plata in 1977). The governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, the two co-hosts of the 2023 conference, advocate for concrete commitments, pledges and actions, across all our sectors, industries and interests, uniting nations, stakeholders and professionals on actions that help deliver on the water actions in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, actions that can be scaled and replicated in the years to come.
It is of crucial importance that the groundwater messages of 2022 are well reflected in those commitments. One way to ensure the inclusion of groundwater is participation in broader networks and coalitions, and highlighting the important role of groundwater within those groups. An example of such initiatives is the Transboundary Water Cooperation Coalition. IGRAC is represented in that coalition, which has already formulated multiple commitments, related to transboundary (ground)water, to be proposed at the UN water conference.
Another way to reach a broader awareness of the importance of groundwater is through film. This is why IGRAC has aligned itself with a new initiative, namely the World Water Film Festival. The first edition of this festival has already received over a hundred film submissions and will be part of the New York water week, the programme around the UN 2023 Water Conference. The festival programme will not only consist of several film viewings, but also a limited number of thematic sessions. One of those will be focused on groundwater and will be organised by IGRAC.